“What’s up, lady? You have too much working today?”
The farmer calls to me through the gate of the cooperative in Jacaltenango. Wearing a felt cowboy hat of beige, greenish slacks and boots, he sits atop his chestnut horse, grinning. We had become friendly over the last few days. I chuckle and set my rake down on the cool cement of the patio. Responding in Spanish I explain that I feel wonderful because where I’m from, the sun doesn’t shine like this in January.
In reality, my body is in shock. My back spasms in cycles and my hands have broken open with small blisters. My small, flat feet are slimy in the rubber boots I was given while washing coffee this morning. Their black nylon sops up the afternoon heat, and though Guatemalans are typically small, the boots are too large and scrape the cement when I walk. When I put them on this morning, I discovered all too late that the left one held a hole; cool spring water covered my Minnesotan toes the moment I had jumped into the fermentation tank with my washing paddle.
Working the system of canals at a wet mill is remarkable. The gravity of the operation and its circular flow of water have simultaneously left a lasting mark on my memory and body alike. After washing, wading and pushing waves of beans through the system, I was handed another rake made of dense wood that was so worn and smooth from years of use that it might have otherwise been intentionally polished to a gleam. While I was careful to turn the washed coffee in its appropriate rows, the rest of the men working at the cooperative raked circles around me, managing to turn the breadth of the patio by the time I finished two plots.
Days before, a member of the cooperative had explained that coffee was all he knew. He had not had time or the money to be educated, he said, and this mountain was his livelihood. He toyed with a fresh cherry as he spoke, wishing a conventional education for his children. Yet as I worked with him on the patios that afternoon, I realized he had received a different kind of education. He would know more about coffee than I could ever hope to garner in all of my research.
During a lecture at the SCAA conference in April, I heard Mark Pendergrast, author of Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How it Transformed Our World, mention that he felt he was sort of a mascot for the Specialty Industry. He couldn’t possibly know as much about coffee as the people who surrounded him then, but they were happy to let him come along and ask questions.
Sometimes I think I’m a mascot too. The individuals I’ve met while working on my seed-to-cup project have aptly offered their knowledge, connected me with their friends, and fielded my endless inquiries with graciousness and a spirit I’ve only seen by those who work in the Specialty industry themselves.
I’ve often been asked about my project and its intent. While I’m not in search of the “right” version of the supply chain and its antics, I am in search of a good one, one that honestly portrays the real work involved in the coffee harvest. Then, there is the plight of exporters, brokers and the constant ebb of prices and a customer’s personal palate. The art of roasting, and a roaster’s goal to bring clever notes to the brew…
In the least, I seek to offer my own historía de café—to give those who will never see the sun come up over Guatemalan mountains or pick a coffee cherry for themselves, a little of the sounds that surround these scenes and an understanding for the personal stories that touch each bean. For coffee is, a will remain at its best, a hand-picked crop and had picked cup. It’s delicate and requires humanity to proliferate, and eventually percolate. (That is, if your palate prefers that kind of bunt brew). Though I know toggle the line between the authentic and the cliché, I feel that is how we are, too. Not mascots for cheering, but percolators or French presses, simmering until something new comes to the surface.
While we all know a percolator isn’t the best device for brewing coffee, it is familiar in the social structures it represents. Societal and global stories have been embedded into the beans it requires to produce our brew. In turn, these beans create the coffee surrounding endless conversations and occasions. Certainly, they are an integral commodity. But as I continue to write, discuss and research further, I realize coffee is not merely commodity, but a fulcrum of human exchange.
As Featured in the December Issue of the Specialty Coffee Chronicle